When one thinks of Africa, prosperity and progress rarely come to mind. In the minds of most Westerners especially, the name conjures up chronic instability, strife, poverty, and (more so lately) disease. But the people of Africa — incredibly diverse and culturally rich — are nothing if not resilient, and they have endured these widespread (though often exaggerated) hardships with remarkable tenacity and perseverance.
The end result is a broadly improved outlook for this fast-growing continent’s future, whose vast potential already being realized, according to a special report by The Economist:
War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well. That applies across much of the continent, including the sub-Saharan part, the main focus of this report.
African statistics are often unreliable, but broadly the numbers suggest that human development in sub-Saharan Africa has made huge leaps. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 after many states expanded their education programmes and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections by up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply.
A booming economy has made a big difference. Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.
Many goods and services that used to be scarce, including telephones, are now widely available. Africa has three mobile phones for every four people, the same as India. By 2017 nearly 30% of households are expected to have a television set, an almost fivefold increase over ten years. Nigeria produces more movies than America does. Film-makers, novelists, designers, musicians and artists thrive in a new climate of hope. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last, double the European rate.
Indeed, while all eyes are (nonetheless justifiably) on China and India, Africa has clearly become another rising force in the global economy, especially as its population is far younger and faster-growing than most parts of the world (which, while currently problematic in light of strained resources, might bode well for the long-term if its potential is harnessed).
Of course, Africa is not a monolithic place by any stretch: on every level, from politics to culture, it is the most diverse geographic area on the planet, by some estimates more than the rest of the world combined. As such, it is not surprising that different countries or regions on the continent are going in varying directions, in equally varying degrees. But the overall trend seems encouraging, if the following maps are any indication:
In recognition of how many readers may be skeptical of such a rosy few of Africa’s prospects, The Economist had set out to verify these data with a physical tour of the continent, perhaps the longest ever undertaken by a journalist (at least by my recollection).
Inevitably, Africa’s rise is being hyped. Boosters proclaim an “African century” and talk of “the China of tomorrow” or “a new India”. Sceptics retort that Africa has seen false dawns before. They fear that foreign investors will exploit locals and that the continent will be “not lifted but looted”. They also worry that many officials are corrupt, and that those who are straight often lack expertise, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiations with investors.
So who is right? To find out, your correspondent traveled overland across the continent from Dakar to Cape Town (see map), taking in regional centres such as Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg as well as plenty of bush and desert. Each part of the trip focused on one of the big themes with which the continent is grappling—political violence, governance, economic development—as outlined in the articles that follow.
The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.
Doubtless, I will be keeping track of the coming articles based on this continental tour. I strongly welcome a more nuanced and firsthand account of Africa beyond the usual stereotypes of decay, underdevelopment, and misery. While we should not make light of the many humanitarian issues that still bedevil that region (among many others), nor get carried away into thinking that prosperity is destiny, it is vital to see that progress is possible and Africa is more than just its negative stereotypes.